girl, in progress

 “What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person.”

It was easy for me to like John Green as a teenager, to feed into his male protagonists’ romanticization of The Unattainable Girl. Reading his books as a gawky teenager made me believe that the best thing that could ever happen to me was adoration, someone believing that I was perfect for them. Of course I grew out of that, and Green’s books as well, but his words from Paper Towns still ring true. It’s easy to create an idea of someone when you first meet them, but harder to deconstruct it when they reveal something that chips away at what you originally thought of them. What takes the most courage, though, is accepting someone for who they are.

It’s funny—I try to plan everything in my life, but nothing ever prepares me for how much someone is going to mean to me. It’s always the idiosyncrasies that I miss most about a person, the things they reveal to me in small doses of vulnerability, because I know how difficult it is to do just that. The small things are the hardest to forget and the hardest to mourn. I’ve crossed paths with a variety of people this year, and they’ve each affected my heart, my mind, and even my writing in some way. But I can’t even put the person who has meant the most to me this year (or honestly, in a long time) into words, make some kind of art out of their absence or turn them into a lesson, because I’m admittedly a selfish person who wants to keep the proof that something meaningful happened all to herself.

As a hostess I literally make a living by telling complete strangers “Bye! Have a good night!” but off the clock, I struggle with the emotional labor that comes with more personal departures. I can only watch Sex and the City: The Movie so many times and laugh at Carrie when she’s sitting at her desk, typing “Love…” and dramatically deletes the last two periods off the ellipses, then the word “Love” altogether. I can only go out dancing with my friends and drink one too many overpriced Rum & Cokes and scream out of pure joy when the DJ plays “thank u, next,” letting myself slip into a moment that lasts long enough to make me feel warm and beautiful again. The loss is still there, but my heart is still beating.

I don’t know how to be opened up without overflowing. I don’t know how to be subtle. I know how to separate like from love but I still feel both deeply whenever they occur. I’m just…a lot. Perhaps I can blame my mother for this, for raising me with 80s and 90s rom-com heroines, or busy powerhouse women of the mid-2000s who cradle Blackberry’s between their shoulder and ear while multitasking, women who unflinchingly say what they think and what they want, before it would become, for lack of a better term, socially acceptable for girls to have large personalities. Despite our differences, there are moments when I think to myself I’m definitely my mother’s daughter. It’s happened multiple times this semester, actually, and I’ve even chuckled to myself over it, especially when I’d walk down Euclid Avenue with a lipstick-stained coffee cup in my hand, my hair and makeup done, a tote bag perched on the sleeve of a thrifted coat, my shoes making a clacking sound against the pavement. But I can’t be that girl all the time; it’s exhausting and holistically unrealistic. I have to give myself a break from the pressure of looking like everything in my life is just fine when I still have kinks to smooth out on a daily basis. Take last night, for example: I’m sitting in my room, in a flannel shirt and leggings with no bra on, eyeing the crust from the pizza I heated up for too long that’s a mere foot away from me and debating if I should keep nibbling at it, all the while singing along to “Tears Dry On Their Own” by Amy Winehouse and trying to distract myself from the fact that I have a twelve-page paper due on Thursday.

Sunday night I went to my mom’s after work to watch the second season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel with her. I feel differently every time I go back to her apartment since I stopped living there permanently nearly two and a half years ago, and since our reconciliation earlier this year. But when we sit in the living room together now, it feels like no time has passed at all. I’m in high school again, she looks over at me when she thinks something on screen is funny, expecting me to laugh too at that exact moment. There’s so much history packed into her apartment; we moved there when I was sixteen, in the middle of my sophomore year of high school. Those walls house so many explosive, emotional outbursts, the rearranging of furniture and paintings, dinner parties, junk-food binges, and all-day cleaning sprees that were announced with the blasting of Pink’s “So What” or Bon Jovi’s Greatest Hits album. When we first moved in I had the larger room that was connected to my mom’s master bedroom with a small Jack-and-Jill styled bathroom. The shelf on the wall adjacent to the sink is still there; a set of hot rollers taking up residence while lip liners and eyeshadows are scattered among it. I looked in the mirror and suddenly felt so old, even though I know this feeling is somewhat paradoxical—numerically there isn’t a big gap between sixteen and twenty-two, but emotionally, there is. I remembered all the early weekday mornings of quietly opening my connecting door and switching on the hot rollers, getting dressed while I waited for them to heat up. I’d stand in front of the mirror, a goofy look of concentration on my face as I sectioned off my hair and methodically rolled and clipped hot molded plastic to my scalp. I’d take the rollers out, briefly feeling grown-up, like someone who was capable of being glamorous and sophisticated, and pick up my bright turquoise Jansport backpack and embark on my forty-minute walk to the high school.

I’ve since traded hot rollers for a curling wand, and my walks to school with bus rides, but I’m partly what that sixteen-year-old envisioned. Maybe she didn’t expect to have two tattoos, or max out her credit card or have her heart stomped on every time she decided to be vulnerable, but she’s still studying English and has business cards and is trying to translate all of the pain and terror and uncertainty into a more hopeful, simplified language.